Thollem McDonas (b. 1967, US) is a pianist, composer, improviser and teacher. He was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area of Irish and Cherokee descent. At the age of five, he began studying the keyboard repertoire from the medieval to the 20th century and studied with many notable teachers including Aiko Onishi and Lou Harrison. After graduating with degrees in both piano performance and composition, he stepped from the concert pianist trajectory to dedicate his time to grassroots political movements and ecological restoration projects. In 2005, he returned to his music as his full focus, incorporating his myriad experiences into his compositions, improvisations and teaching. Thollem travels perpetually as a performer, composer and teacher, covering much of the North American continent and Europe, often leading listening and group improvisation workshops as well as master classes. He has performed extensively as a soloist as well as in piano concertos with symphonies, West African drumming troupes, Javanese gamelan ensembles, punk bands, with film makers, dancers, poets and painters and a wide array of divergent musicians, both famous and under-known. In the past 7 years, he has added 30 albums to his discography on 12 different vanguard labels in 4 different countries. He is the founding director of Estamos Ensemble, a Mexican-American cross border ensemble for musical exchange. As a writer, his essay, “Deep Listening and the Peripatetic Life of an Improvising Musician” was written specifically for An Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening (Deep Listening Institute, 2012) in honor of master musician Pauline Oliveros‘ 80th birthday. His music is diverse, with each album and every concert exploring a variety of approaches and paths, resulting in dramatically different outcomes.
- American Music Center: CAP, 2010 - 'Stirring Awake' debuted at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA.
- Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation: USArtists, 2009 - Estamos Ensemble, Director (funding assistance for participation in The International Festival of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico)
- Meet the Composer: Creative Connections, 2007 (concert accompanied by a discussion with the composer)
photo by Angela C Villa click on photo for hi res press copy
Ancient Futures - MP3
A moment is only if? - MP3
Inbetween inbetween - MP3
House of old cold stone house - MP3
Soldier of Ideas (Ruix Records)
Thollem/Scodanibbio (The Pulse)
Thollem Electric (Wilamette Weekly)
Key Figures (Metro Active)
Estamos Ensemble (SF Classical Voice)
"The Gowanus Session is a sound sculpture. It seems purposefully unlistenable...and I keep listening to it." Steve Greenlee, Jazz Times - “The Gowanus Session”
"The songs combine avante garde elements with hard rock and abrasive noise...to create a strange whirlwind of modern rock energy." BabySue - “Read Between the Lines … Think Outside Them”
“Expect a mix of expertly crafted dissonance and political commentary.” Edd Hurt, Nashville Scene
"Thollem McDonas does what few can: He combines extreme imagination with terrific post-classical chops and an ability to communicate through melody a fresh, disciplined avant-pianist with an attractively extreme viewpoint." Greg Burk - LA Weekly (US)
"Unreal linear explosions" Greg Burk, LA Weekly
“Pianist Thollem McDonas thinks quicker than God, but his pressure-packed melodic constructions don't leave you in the dust.” Greg Burke, MetalJazz
“One minute he is running through a Tom Waits sounding piano and vocal piece. The next minute drops into a grooving samba tune.” Ryan McDurmott, One Final Note
“Thollem McDonas, an intense and virtuosic keyboard improviser” TimeOut, 26Aug12 - Thollem Electric with Greg Saunier at Zebulon in NYC
"Pianist Thollem McDonas is a particularly powerful voice". David Keenan, Glasgow
"With each piece McDonas creates a universe of its own...very original... a fresh voice." - Dolf Mulder, VitalWeekly (Holland)
“...jump in this exceptional source of musical energy and enjoy it.” Dolf Mulder, Vital Weekly (Holland)
“McDonas shows many faces, often with humor and irony... [his pieces] all breathe the same atmosphere of adventure and joy...” Dolf Mulder, Vital Weekly (Holland)
"McDonas welds elements of jazz, and classical music into a mighty tower of song, then shatters his construct with the breathless bull-rush of a mystic improviser.”
River Front Times, St. Louis, MO
“Thollem’s hands were like ten pounding steam-pistons” Tom Djll, Signal To Noise, Spring 2011
“McDonas took the audience for such an exhilarating ride, leaving us gasping to keep up.” Tom Djll, Signal To Noise, Spring 2011
“brilliant, bursting pearls in the astonished air.” Tom Djll, Signal To Noise, Spring 2011
“a supercollider centrifuge of innumerable disasters, a churning black caldera bespattered with beautiful madness.” Tom Djll, Signal To Noise, Spring 2011
“It seems beyond the capacity of one human being to contain so much densely-packed creative energy...” Tom Djll, Signal To Noise, Spring 2011
“His sound ecosystem is wet, like a rain forest dripping with life and death: shadowed in darkness but nourished by hot sunlight, teeming with crouching predators and bright birds exploding from the trees, their raucous bellows resonating and echoing through hollow canyons and caverns choked with chordal undergrowth. It’s a crowded place.”
- Tom Djll, Signal To Noise, Spring 2011 (US)
"McDonas' piano are Defalla (driving rhythms and Iberian modes), Schoenberg (unresolved dissonances a mile high), the collapsing/expanding tempi of Nancarrow, and splatterings of Cecil Taylor..." - Tom Djll, Signal to Noise (US)
"Thollem has that rare gift of soulful equilibrium, which he alternates with digital dexterities that have few equals on the current scene."
Massimo Ricci, TouchingExtremes (Italy)
"Among the principal features of the pianist’s style is the ability of overwhelming without letting one feel intimidated. The massive polychordal cascades, the rumbling (yet never rambling) arpeggios, the perseveration in trying to locate the keyboard spots in which that roaring creature gathers energy and begins to fly. And then, just like that, the silence falls...” - Massimo Ricci, TouchingExtremes (Italy)
"Thollem McDonas is simply one of the great improvisers of today."
- The Detroiter (U.S.)
“Your piano playing is to die for!...some of the more creative stuff i've ever heard."
- Alisa Clancy, KCSM - San Mateo, CA
"Pianist Thollem McDonas solo piano set touched on virtually every genre of music. Dressed in a t-shirt, cargo slacks, and old work boots, McDonas didn’t have the disposition or attitude of a music virtuoso. He looked more like a skilled laborer. But he constructed a set of improvised music that had all the creativity and energy of Thelonious Monk and Igor Stravinsky playing at a neighborhood jam session."
I DIG JAZZ
- Charles L. Latimer's Jazz Journal
"Thollem dives headlong into fascinating unforeseen and bold musical adventures that make him one of the most interesting pianists of the current improvised music genre...the result is the natural consequence of being intrinsically eclectic at heart. "
- Eduardo Chagas, TomaJazz (Portugal)
"To read between the lines and play outside them,” is the guiding principle of pianist Thollem McDonas.”
Eduardo Chagas, TomaJazz (Portugal)
“His inventiveness is facilitated by his highly developed virtuosity, a tool that allows him to confer on his music an extraordinary flexibility and dynamic variability.” Eduardo Chagas, TomaJazz (Portugal)
"rebel attitude and sweet/sour voice” - Eduardo Chagas, TomaJazz (Portugal)
"McDonas welds elements of jazz, blues and classical music into a mighty tower of song, then shatters his construct with the breathless bull-rush of a mystic improviser."
- The River Front Times (St. Louis)
"McDonas is a pianist with highly developed technical skills at the piano. His flourishes and runs up and down the keyboard are executed with crystal clarity."
- Winthrop Bedford, Jazz Improv Magazine (U.S.)
“With McDonas we are faced with overflowing and irrepressible exuberance.”
- AllAboutJazz (Italy) December, 2009
“His imagination is overwhelming and unstoppable as a flood, as powerful as the fast current, often as a red-hot lava. A continuous flow, often turbulent, sometimes stops in temporary pools of calm, the mood sweeter or absorbed.”
AllAboutJazz (Italy) December, 2009
“During this race relentless style and suggestions have alternated and mixed: the atonality jazz, Middle Eastern influences, stubborn minimalist, blues loaded and powerful expressionism...” AllAboutJazz (Italy) December, 2009
“Sun Ra would have liked this guy.” RFK, Monotremata - USA